Most villagers cannot afford to start a fresh life away from the zero line, and bear the brunt of hostilities between India and Pakistan.
Silikote (LoC, Uri): The solider at the entrance of a village that is nestled among conifers and walnut trees watches over every person that walks past the gate. A few meters ahead, a voice emerges from inside the bunker built on the edge of the road, cautioning people to move fast and stay clear of the forward post that is near the ‘zero-line’. “Don’t stay in the village for too long,” the voice grows shriller.
It is 11:15 am on Sunday, October 2, four days after India conducted ‘surgical strikes’ on terrorist launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) along the Line of Control (LoC).
Silikote – the last village on the LoC with Pakistan – appears lifeless. The houses made of stones and mud seem empty. Amid the deathly silence in the alleys, the autumn sun pierces the clouds and sets aglow windows covered with tin sheets.
Suddenly, a door opens. An elderly woman walks past terraced patches of a field and rolls out a plastic sheet under the open sky to dry locally grown fennel seeds. She hurries back to sit in the verandah at the back of her house, away from the eyes gazing from across the LoC through the bunkers on the cliff.
Silikote lies exactly opposite the mountainous villages of Saljiwar and Khawaja Banday, the last habitations from Pakistan side, and is watched over by forward posts.
The villages on the mountainous ranges on either side are separated by the Hajipir Nallah (stream) that flows from Pakistan into Uri and which is circled by at least 55 border villages.
Village on the edge
While an uneasy calm hangs over the mountainous village, located some 120 kms from Srinagar, the attack on the army base in Uri on September 18, which triggered renewed tensions between the neighbouring countries, weighs heavily on minds of the people here.
“Any escalation on the borders means nightmares for us… nobody can understand what it means to live on the LoC in such times,” said 57-year-old Jana Begum.
Minutes later, her husband Atta Muhammad Khan, a tall man with a flowing white beard, joins in. “We pray and hope that no bullets are fired this time.”
Khan’s fears stem not only from the recent border skirmishes, but also from the growing war hysteria between India and Pakistan. “These days the only news about Kashmir is the looming war,” he sighs.
While fear is visible on every face, so far none of the families have moved from Silikote. Migration would mean leaving behind cattle, stacks of crops and houses that were built with plenty of struggle post the 2003-2004 ceasefire agreement. “We are left with no choice, where will we go? It is a compulsion for us to continue living here when we have seen events turning ugly in a moment in the past,” said Shabir Ahmad.
The main source of income of Silikote – which comprises about 30 families – is cattle rearing and farming. Over the years, dozens of families have migrated from this habitation to the main Uri town and beyond. The economically-weak who couldn’t afford to start a fresh life down the mountains and away from the zero line, have left their survival up to fate.
“This too shall pass is what we keep on telling ourselves in these times,” Nasir Ahmad Chalko intervenes, adding that the “mantra” in the village is that everything is normal till it really gets ugly. His words are echoed by Farooq Ahmad, a retired head constable from the army who lives in Balkote village. “There is lot of tension and people keep on discussing what will happen next,” he said in a soft tone.
His son Asif Farooq, a class nine student, hasn’t been to school since the recent escalation. The same goes for his friend Muhammad Arif, a class seven student, and many others from the two villages. “[Our] parents don’t allow us because of the situation,” Arif says, adding that the primary school on the upper side of the road remains open.
The primary school, which comprises five classrooms, has 46 students from class one to five. On the day I visit, only seven students have turned up. The day before, there were just five students. “The tension is growing and that has led to [a] drop in attendance,” said Sajida, a teacher at the school.
On the way down, a group of young boys caution outsiders against going near a house that they say has been locked for many years. “It is a bhoot ghar (house of ghosts). People have seen ghosts coming out of it in the dark.”
Bitter memories from the past
This is not the first time the villagers have had sleepless nights in Silikote, Churanda and the other border villages, as fears that the guns might begin roaring continue to haunt them.
Irshad Ahmad remembers the hazy morning of November 2001 when the day-long calm was broken by heavy shelling from across the border. One of the shells hit his leg, which was later amputated.
Two years later, in September 2003, Ahmad lost his mother Saja Begum when she was hit by a bullet while grazing cattle in a nearby field.
“The tragedies left us devastated,” said Rubeena, Ahmad’s younger sister, adding that in those days, guns would roar almost every day along the 720-km LoC. The ceasefire agreement was a much needed initiative for people living in the border villages – one they were desperate for – but the killings didn’t stop.
In 2012, Churanda and Suljawadi, the two villages divided by a deep gorge from the PoK ridges, bore the brunt of the hostilities between India and Pakistan. Three civilians, including a woman, were killed on an early November morning in shelling from soldiers of the rival post after accusations and counter accusations over the violation of the agreement from both sides.
“We have suffered the most in the past,” says Muhammad Latief Koli of Churanda village, which comprises around 195 houses that were mostly constructed with tin and ply following the devastating earthquake in 2005 in which around 35 people from the village were killed.
Unlike Silikote, Churanda is situated in the open, facing the forward posts from across the LoC, which makes it more vulnerable to border skirmishes. The fear that war could break out at any time has kept the men away from the ‘zero line,’ where they would often go to cut grass for the cattle. “We haven’t even picked the maize crop yet from the fields… you never know when the lull will be broken,” said Lal Din, a local sarpanch from the Congress party.
According to Showkat Ahmad Rather, sub-district magistrate of Uri, the government is ready with an evacuation plan in case of any emergency, but the people from the border villages aren’t ready to leave. The Uri subdivision, according to Rather, consists of over 1.25 lakh people and in case of a “tense situation”, more than 50,000 people from over 55 border villages will be directly impacted.
“These villages come in the zone of artillery shelling from across the border,” says Rather.
Ignored and vulnerable
In the past, in an event of any escalation along the LoC, the families would huddle in underground bunkers that were built with funds from the defence ministry. That option, however, is long gone since the 2005 earthquake flattened the villages and the underground constructions.
The demand for the reconstruction of the bunkers is now as old as the memories of the devastating quake. People have repeatedly held dharnas, have blocked roads and sat on hunger strikes in the past, but the issue hasn’t moved beyond the planning phase.
A senior government official says the “less tense situation” along the border over the years has cause the delay in reconstruction. He, however, claims that the state government has already framed a plan and approached the Centre for assistance. “The decade-long calm on the border led everyone to believe that the situation has changed for the good. It wasn’t the case,” the official said.
Jaffar Hussain, the tehsildar of Uri, insists that the villagers have been asked to take “extra precautions” while stating that the government was working in close coordination with the army, which has two brigades in Uri, to handle any eventuality.
But in these border villages, with the long held peace between the rival nuclear powers is under threat, words like “extra-precaution” don’t matter, says 73-year-old Zareef Hussain of Suljawadi. “Once the guns roar, these villages turn [into] hell,” he says. “Then the only thing that matters is struggle for survival, to live another day.”